More Good News for a Promising Earthquake Early-Warning Tool

Damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Santa Monica, California

Damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Santa Monica, California Shutterstock


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Here’s what’s planned for the next phase of the ShakeAlert system that’s been under development on the West Coast.

SEATTLE — As part of Route Fifty’s ongoing emergency management series, “The Geography of Disaster Risk and Resiliency in America,” I featured a scenario about how applications built off an earthquake early-warning system could be deployed to vulnerable locations and infrastructure, alerting people and vital systems that destructive seismic waves will soon strike.

Depending on the distance of an earthquake’s epicenter and magnitude, vulnerable West Coast cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle could have a few seconds or upwards of a minute before the most damaging seismic waves hit their localities.

ShakeAlert, the system that’s been under development on the West Coast through a U.S. Geological Survey partnership with academic institutions, including the California Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley, University of Oregon and the University of Washington, has been making steady, incremental progress as seismic networks become more robust and improvements are made to the systems that detect quakes and relay alerts.

If those alerts can be deployed widely through cellphone networks when a quake is detected, people can take quick action to seek a more secure location to ride it out. It’s built upon the idea that a sensor network can detect an earthquake and relay an alert faster than destructive earthquake waves can reach certain locations.

The I-5 Colonnade park in Seattle, under a viaduct that carries Interstate 5. (Photo by Michael Grass / Route Fifty)

Those sensor networks could trigger valves on water tanks to close, shut down gas pipelines, halt or slow trains and prompt surgeons in hospitals to halt operations underway and secure patients and staff. Such a system can’t stop an earthquake from happening, but it can save lives, reduce injuries and minimize seismic impacts on systems that will be important in any response or recovery operation.  

While earthquake early-warning systems have not necessarily emerged from a new technological breakthrough—Japan, Mexico Romania and Turkey all have developed their own systems—the U.S. has lagged behind and is currently playing catch up. The prototype alert system has performed well, but it’s only been available to testing partners. And it’s yet to have been tested by a major quake.

An ongoing obstacle: Federal funding to build and deploy the ShakeAlert system has been limited. In fact, President Trump’s budget proposals had called for the elimination of federal funding for ShakeAlert. But a bipartisan effort of Capitol Hill led by West Coast lawmakers, has been working to secure continued federal appropriations for the system.

In some good near-term news for ShakeAlert’s advocates and disaster preparedness on the West Coast, the USGS recently announced additional funding for ShakeAlert—$4.9 million to be distributed among the network’s academic partners and an additional $1 million to improve regional sensor networks.

So for now, earthquake early-warning systems will progress on the West Coast. What else is planned for the next phase of ShakeAlert’s development?

According to the U.S. Geological Survey:

These agreements include work to incorporate real-time GPS observations into ShakeAlert. The USGS and its university and nonprofit partners will also further the development and streamlining of scientific algorithms to rapidly detect potentially damaging earthquakes, more thoroughly test the warning system and improve its performance. In addition, they will upgrade the networks and install new seismic stations to improve the speed and reliability of the warnings. The ShakeAlert partners will also continue user training and education efforts, in collaboration with state and local partners, and add additional ShakeAlert pilot users. There are currently about 60 organizations that are test users, from sectors such as utilities, transportation, emergency management, state and city governments, and industry. Several of these are engaged in pilot projects to demonstrate the practical use of ShakeAlert in a variety of applications.

“Our team is hard at work upgrading seismic instrumentation, data telemetry, and data processing facilities to ensure the highest-quality warning system possible," Paul Bodin, research professor of seismology at University of Washington and network manager of Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, said in a statement.

Time is ticking. It’s only a matter of time until the next seismic disaster. Hopefully with ShakeAlert, more progress can be made on implementation before the next major quake strikes California or Pacific Northwest.

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

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